It's not all talk in the unfortunately titled Speech and Debate. The razor-sharp, smart-ass and radically realistic drama about a high school debate team shows playwright Stephen Karam to have an ear for teenspeak and empathy for the uber-drama that is high school.
Despite the dry-as-academic-dust name and the potential-free sounding premise ( the notion of a comedy about a nascent high school debate team hardly piques the curiosity ) , Speech and Debate is an engaging bit of business, particularly for those still smarting from the injustices, uncertainties and melodramas of high school. It also seems an odd choice for the 24-year-old American Theatre Company, a troupe defined by the seasoned depth of master actors well into the heart of adulthood. At its heart, Speech and Debate is a warm, funny teenage coming-of-age story peppered with smartly articulated Big Issues about privacy, technology and human boundaries. It's clever, entertaining and a piece that could play as a superior After School Special ( if those even exist anymore. ) And, indeed, there's but a single adult character in the cast, one played by the sole ATC company member in the cast. As engaging as the piece is, one hopes it isn't a harbinger of the new direction Artistic Director PJ Paparelli has promised for ATC.
Paparelli does elicit insightful performances from the quartet on stage, which include three student outcasts at a high school in Salem, Ore. ( It's not for nothing one in the group is obsessed with 'The Crucible.' ) These lovable quirksters include the drama queen Diwata ( Sadieh Rifal, richly comic and hilariously conflicted ) , who channels her devastation at not making the school musical into writing her own musical based on Arthur Miller's classic allegory of witch hunts. Joining the would-be high school musical star in forming the Speech and Debate club is Solomon ( Jared McGuire, excellent under pressure as a last-minute replacement for Stephen Louis Grush ) , nerdy editor of the school newspaper. And, finally, there's Howie ( Patrick Andrews, winsome and wryly charming ) , gay, out and—as the production opens—being picked up online by a fellow who turns out to be wholly inappropriate as far as relationship material is concerned. Read more story below....
In top form is Cheryl Graeff in the dual grown-up roles of a self-important reporter and a beleaguered teacher. The fifth star of the production is Marty Higginbotham's slickly incorporated, techno-agile video projections.
As Solomon, Diwata and Howie form the Speech and Debate Club, they embark into the thorny ethical dilemmas of ethics and free speech. Should they out a drama teacher with a thing for young boys and expose the sexual shenanigans of Salem's tight-laced, conservative mayor? The questions are provocative, the players winning. In all, Speech and Debate is a fast-paced, enjoyable evening ... aimed squarely at those for whom high school is still relevant.
Playwright: Stephen Karam
At: American Theatre Company, 1909 W. Byron
Runs through: May 25